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Baking Artistry

Houston baker Andrea de Gortari triumphs on Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge.

Andrea de Gortari (Photo by Maricela Varela)

When a casting agent reached out to 36-year-old professional baker Andrea de Gortari on Instagram about being on Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge, she figured it was just a scam. “So, I didn’t pay much attention to it,” she says. She answered a week later, and after a little back and forth they asked for her number.

December 2023 issue

After they set up an initial interview, Ms. de Gortari nearly canceled. Imposter syndrome was hitting her hard. But her husband helped her through. “He told me I had nothing to lose and only things to gain out of it, but he would back up my decision no matter what I chose to do,” she says.

“They absolutely loved me,” de Gortari, who identifies as bisexual, says. “I think I was just different from your average competitor. I was a fat, queer, weirdo with no kids and covered in tattoos. But also, I’m crazy talented, and I absolutely deserved it, and I need to keep saying that out loud.”

Before she knew it, she was in.

A pastry chef and owner of a home-based bakery in central Houston called The Bake Happening, de Gortari had worked in bakeries and restaurants her entire life before finally going solo in 2020 during the pandemic. “I specialize in custom cakes and decorated cookies,” she says. “I do pop-ups seasonally and also offer themed boxes around the holidays.”

She’s lived in Houston her entire life, but spent a lot of her childhood in Mexico City with family over school breaks. She says she feels lucky to have grown up in Houston, where there are people from so many different cultures and backgrounds.

“So we were exposed early on to pastries from all over the world,” de Gortari says. “My family lived in France before they had me, so I was completely obsessed with French pastries growing up.”

There was a small Lebanese mom-and-pop shop just around the corner from her when she was growing up, where she would go regularly with her family. “Rita, one of the owners, would get so excited to see me,” de Gortari says. “She’d show me the latest pastry she was working on to get my opinions. I was just an awkward high school kid, but it felt really good that my opinion mattered.”

The budding chef did not grow up in a baking family, however. “My mother is an amazing cook, but she was always on the more savory side. My older sister wasn’t allowed in the kitchen because she had the habit of setting things on fire. My mother had a catering business for a short while when I was little. She made the most amazing tamales,” she says.

Baker Andrea de Gortari’s creations (Photo by Karolina Cantu)

Her mother was not blessed in the baking department, though. “I always had such a sweet tooth as a kid,” de Gortari says, “so I yearned for it. I would make cookies and cheesecakes for my family, and in high school I would take over bake sales. I knew I wanted to get into baking pretty early on.”

She says watching the Food Network after school was such a huge inspiration for her. “My mother learned how to cook with PBS, and the younger generation had Food Network. My mom also collected Bon Appetit and Martha Stewart magazines, and I would skim through them all the time, just salivating.”

De Gortari knew how to follow instructions and had a good general knowledge of how to move around the kitchen, so baking came fairly naturally. “I also loved art, and would paint in my free time. So it’s a no-brainer that my career path went the way it did.”

She attended Culinary Institute LeNotre out of high school. “It was a very short six-month program, where we learned everything about pastry in that time. One week of chocolate, one week of bread, one week of entremets.”

Her favorite thing about baking, de Gortari says, is the feelings she gets when she tries something for the first time and sees people’s reactions to her food. “Baking brings so many people joy. I remember I had my first Ratatouille moment in culinary school. I think I was done with my work fairly early in the day, and my chef gave me a hand-written recipe.”

The recipe was for a simple spice bread,and she made it. “It smelled heavenly coming out of the oven. All the chefs gathered around and were eating it while it was still piping hot,” she says. “They were almost in tears, recalling the times they last had something like that, when their own mothers would bake that same bread. It was just like 30 minutes of back-and-forth storytelling from their childhoods, and I could see the absolute joy on their faces. I was like, ‘Holy shit, I did that!’”

Despite the fact that being in the kitchen can mean long, monotonous hours, de Gortari loves it. “It’s hard on your hands, back, and feet, and you’re most likely sweating the whole time, but there’s also so much beauty behind it. I look forward to it every day.

Before the challenge, de Gortari says she would practice any chance she got. “My husband would make up fake challenges, pull random ingredients from the pantry for my ‘secret ingredient’ and start the timer.” Ultimately though, it took a number of phone and Zoom interviews, a mock-up challenge at home, and then a final presentation to the main directors before she was invited onto the show.

She says there are so many aspects of baking that inspire her, including shopping at other small businesses for ingredients. “Nothing beats freshly milled cornmeal, locally made cajeta, or seeing what’s fresh at the local farmers market.” She also loves being a part of the baking community. “It is so dang amazing, supportive, and talented. I’m always in awe of my peers.”

As for her personal style when it comes to decorating, she says, “I really love mid-century modern mixed with the bold lines of traditional tattoos with a hint of horror. It’s unique, but you see more and more people embracing a similar style, and I absolutely love it!”

Being on the Christmas Cookie Challenge, she says, was a complete whirlwind of emotions. “Stressful from being in an unfamiliar environment with a camera shoved in your face while you’re trying not to mess up. Exciting from seeing the most amazing studio completely decked out in Christmas decorations. Exhausting from such a long day of filming and running around the kitchen all day, posing for photos and answering interview questions,” she says.

In the end, though, it was all worth it, she says.  “All my fellow competitors were so amazing, and we were all feeling the same way. We all just tried to take it all in and enjoy the ride while it lasted.”

You can find de Gortari’s goodies at Houston Coffee Community Market at Greenway Coffee Roastery on December 2 from 4 to 7 p.m. and Have A Nice Day Market at Stages Theater onsl December 16 from 4 to8 p.m. “I’ll also be dropping a set menu that you can order for pick-up the week before Christmas,” she says. “Following me on Instagram or signing up for notifications through Hotplate are the best way to not miss it!”

Follow Andrea de Gortari on Instagram @the_bake_happening.

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Jenny Block

Jenny Block is a frequent contributor to a number of high-profile publications from New York Times to Huffington Post to Playboy and is the author of four books, including “Be That Unicorn: Find your Magic. Live your Truth. Share your Shine." She has appeared on a variety of television and radio programs from Nightline to BBC Radio to Great Day Houston and has performed and spoken at bookstores, events, conferences, and resorts in the US and Mexico, as well as on Holland America Cruise ships.
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